For the first time all year, football coach Willie Fritz missed Tulane’s practice Wednesday because he was on the road recruiting.
Many of his assistants were not around, either. The Green Wave is trying to make a huge push to bring in a full class of 25 before the early signing begins Dec. 19, rather than waiting for the traditional first Wednesday of February and having other schools pluck all the best prospects.
When the NCAA legislated an early signing date in 2017, it created a logistical headache for every team competing in a bowl game before Christmas.
Tulane (6-6), which faces UL-Lafayette (7-5) next Saturday in the Cure Bowl, is experiencing that pain for the first time as it prepares for a game that will determine whether it finishes above or below .500.
The Wave, playing in only its third postseason contest of the past 20 years, wants to win in the worst way — but not at the expense of mortgaging the future.
“Unfortunately you have to get on the road and recruit, and you also want to do a great job with preparation,” Fritz said. “You’ve just got to be able to juggle it. It’s a good problem to have. It beats the alternative, which is just straight recruiting. Luckily we have enough graduate assistants and student coaches to be able to do both.”
The day after the Cure Bowl, Dec. 16, is a quiet period on the NCAA recruiting calendar, meaning coaches can only meet recruits on the college campus. The day after that begins a dead period, with no in-person contact allowed at all through Jan. 10.
Tulane, which had only seven solid commitments plus Oklahoma State graduate transfer wide receiver Jalen McCleskey entering last weekend, needed to go full-speed on the recruiting trail at the same time it began focusing on the bowl.
The coaches’ absence turned Wednesday’s workout into a players’ affair.
“It was more of a captain-led practice, with older guys leading position groups, but our team is mature,” said safety Roderic Teamer, who has played in 39 career games. “We have a lot of young guys, but we’re a mature team, and when it’s time to work, we work.”
Fritz was back for Friday morning’s practice and said he would not miss any more workouts. His one-day absence, he pointed out, is a regular reality in the offseason because of to NCAA rules.
“I’ve got good young men, and they can get out there and go,” he said. “In the summer you’ve got to do a bunch of this. We’re not allowed to be out there when they have a football (during the offseason), so they’ve got to run the practices. You hope they go out there and do it the way they are supposed to do it.”
Meanwhile, the early signs for December recruiting have been positive. Three players who took official visits last weekend already have committed — cornerback Levi Williams of Bloomingdale High in Valrico, Florida; outside linebacker Armoni Dixon of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois; and wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson of Hahnville High.
Jackson, a three-star prospect according to 247 Sports and Rivals.com, was an SMU commitment for five months and had an offer from West Virginia.
Dixon, another three-star prospect according to 247 Sports, had offers from Cincinnati and Syracuse before choosing Tulane. Loyola Academy won a state championship in Illinois’ largest classification, holding its four playoff opponents to a combined 19 points. Maxpreps.com lists him with 86 tackles, including 18 for loss.
Williams, rated three stars by 247 Sports, attracted offers from West Virginia and South Florida and was committed to Iowa State briefly in June.
Tulane balanced bowl prep with its final group of about 16 official visitors this weekend, according to a source. The list includes offensive lineman Christian Montano, a four-year starter at Brown University who missed all but the 2018 opener with a foot injury. He was a preseason first-team All-Ivy League selection.
If the Wave lands shy of its goal of 25 signees on Dec. 19, it has the fallback of the February late signing date, but Fritz likes the vibe at the moment. Tulane's first bowl in his three-year tenure and first since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2014 has opened some eyes.
“We’ve got a really good response to our season,” he said. “Kids are beginning to understand the level of play in the American. When you combine that with the academics here at Tulane and also the city of New Orleans, you’ve got a lot to recruit.”